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State seismic regulators destroyed key records

Yuli Weeks/California WatchThe Division of the State Architect has erased the electronic records of former high-level officials, including former State Architect David Thorman.

The office that regulates California school construction routinely destroyed key documents that might have shed light on its lax enforcement of earthquake safety standards – despite a binding agreement it has with the State Archives to preserve public records.

For the past five years, the Division of the State Architect has erased the entire computer hard drives and copies of records saved on computer servers within a month of an employee's departure. Those records included all e-mail correspondence, directives, meeting notes and minutes, policy documents, and appointment calendars.

Such records help explain how enforcement decisions were developed and carried out. The retention agreement between the two offices shows that state regulators were not allowed to destroy correspondence and meeting minutes from its top managers without clearance from the State Archives. The records should have been saved for at least four years and then transferred to the State Archives, according to the retention documents. 

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The destroyed documents take on greater significance now that the state architect's office has come under scrutiny for its lax enforcement and questionable application of seismic safety standards. In reporting about the state's system of oversight, California Watch was able to obtain some of these documents through other sources – before records were destroyed. But there is no way to know how many records have been forever lost.

Eric Lamoureux, spokesman for the Department of General Services, which oversees the state architect's office, said the office views all e-mails not saved in individual school project files or any shared internal databases as "informal communications" that can be destroyed. Lamoureux said the department didn't notify the State Archives because there isn't a requirement to do so for "transitory" records. 

High-level policymakers and executives whose e-mails, memos, appointment calendars and other electronic records were destroyed include former State Architect David Thorman, former top administrator Kathy Hicks, former chief structural engineer Dennis Bellet, former Oakland Regional Manager Nat Chauhan and former Los Angeles Regional Manager Shaf Ullah.

Thorman resigned in August 2010. Hicks transferred to the Department of General Services' Procurement Division in November 2010. Bellet and Chauhan left in December 2010, and Ullah on Sept. 19 of this year.

The departures occurred during a California Watch investigation that found the Division of the State Architect routinely failed to enforce the Field Act, California’s landmark earthquake safety law and building code for public schools. The investigation found at least 20,000 projects that did not comply with Field Act requirements. The shortcomings ranged from missing fire alarms to major structural issues in new classrooms.

After California Watch requested Hicks' and Ullah's e-mails, state architect officials disclosed that they had deleted the records.

The agency generally erases all records stored on an individual's computer within days of departure, so the computer can be used by another employee, Lamoureux said. He said the agency has no policy mandating the preservation of records on computer hard drives. 

Since 2006, technical staff have deleted all former employees' backup e-mails and electronic documents stored on the department's computer servers exactly one month after an employee left the job, according to an administrative order from Ron Joseph, who was then director of the Department of General Services. Joseph's order was imposed on all offices inside the department. It says the goal was to save money:

This change to the retention schedule results in significant savings to the department by reducing costs for tape, labor and off-site storage.

... DGS employees shall delete unnecessary electronic documents and e-mail messages on a monthly basis, at a minimum. Weekly is recommended, making the task simpler and faster.

David Uhlich, an archivist at UC Berkeley, said it is common for agencies to balance records retention requirements with the storage space limitations of their computer servers. But he said the Department of General Services' order seemed "a little extreme."

"By my understanding, policies such as these are usually written to save server space, but this one doesn't seem to provide enough safeguards for protecting the actual records," Uhlich said.

The high-level state architect employees – Thorman, Hicks, Bellet, Chauhan and Ullah – all played key roles in determining how regulators would enforce state seismic standards. They also shaped and directed a review of the 1,100 projects that had been flagged for safety concerns, after receiving questions from California Watch.

The destroyed e-mails could have offered an important window into the workings of the office during an intense period of scrutiny. Other internal e-mails obtained by California Watch from the records of current employees show a rising level of concern about the agency's failure to certify schools. 

In one October 2010 e-mail to managers, Hicks called the proposed review an "all hands on deck" order.

"The backlog of projects closed without certification is going to be DSA's next publicly criticized failure –even if we don't truly own the problem," Hicks wrote. "We have to get ahead of the problem and to be able to show that we are making progress."

By February 2011, however, another top manager expressed concerns about the agency's efforts after finding more than 400 separate building projects in the Los Angeles region had been reclassified from possible structural defects to missing paperwork “for no apparent or recorded reason.”

"We are not questioning those changes," wrote Robert Tetz, then leader of the task force conducting the review. "Is that appropriate?"

Earlier this month, the state auditor concluded that the state architect's office failed to ensure that the buildings occupied by children and teachers are safe. Auditors now are conducting a second review of the regulatory agency, this time examining the state architect's office's building plan reviews and its use of consultants to supplement the office's efforts. 

At the request of California Watch, the state architect's office has agreed to preserve the backup files for Ullah's and Hick's electronic records currently saved on agency servers.

However, all records from Thorman's, Bellet's and Chauhan's primary and backup accounts are gone. Only a scant amount of electronic correspondence and memos from the former executives still exist in the e-mail and computer files of a few current employees.

Lamoureux said technical staff will continue to educate new employees about the need to move their work-related documents to agency servers.

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